Ruadhrí’s favourite pudding in the whole world is crème anglaise. Before we came to France it was custard. But now he prefers the  French version. Where have I gone wrong?

Crème anglaise is the closest you’ll get to custard here in France. And when I say custard, I’m actually referring to Bird’s custard. The sort you make by mixing Bird’s custard powder with milk. I mean, there isn’t any other sort of custard is there!

It’s time to put these two contenders to the test.

First up, let’s look at the ingredients. In a carton of crème anglaise you’ll find : lait partiellement écremé (partially skimmed milk), sucre (sugar), jaune d’oeuf sucré (sweetened egg yolk), amidon modifié de maïs (modified corn starch), épaississants – gomme xanthane, carraghénanes (thickeners – xanthum gum, carrageen), arômes (flavourings), colorant bêta-carotène (colouring – beta carotene). Traces de gluten et de fruits à coque (traces of gluten and nuts). Bird’s custard powder contains cornflour, salt, annatto (colour) and flavourings.

Right. Now, custard dates from the Middle Ages. It’s traditionally a mixture of milk, cream, sugar and egg yolks. The eggs are what in fact make it proper custard. So on that score crème anglaise is more like real custard than Bird’s. However, the term is used these days to describe many starch-thickened puds. Bird’s custard is egg free because Alfred Bird, who created it in 1837, was married to a lady who was allergic to eggs. Since she couldn’t eat the traditionally-made custard, her kind husband came up with this familiar household product and made his fortune. Today, nearly half of all custard sold in the UK is Bird’s, and 99% of people have heard of Bird’s. That’s probably more than have heard of the Prime Minister.

Both crème anglaise and custard have colouring in them. Bird’s uses annatto, which is a natural food colour. It comes from the achiote tree, found in tropical South America – and its taste is described as slightly peppery with hint of nutmeg. It is food additive E160b. It’s noteworthy that annatto is the only natural food colouring believed to cause as many allergic-type reactions as artificial food colouring. So maybe the beta-carotene in crème anglaise is the better option. But it’s not as yellow!

Here's my custard in the front - a good jugful

As for the flavourings, both products are suitably vague. Here’s a website that gives a list of what counts as arômes in puddings and pastries in France. As for what Bird’s might be, perhaps vanilla and almond?

The crème anglaise carton announces proudly that it contains 10 servings. But it’s only 500 ml. It cannot be serious!!!! No way is 50 ml, 2 dessertspoonfuls, a proper serving. Here’s that in Ruadhri’s bowl. Ridiculous! Everyone knows custard comes by the bowlful.

50 mls - that's not a helping!

Now this is a proper helping.

Everyone also knows that if you hold a spoonful of custard up in the air, the custard should only slide off very slowly, if, ideally, at all. Custard needs to be thick. Crème anglaise is WAY too runny!

Custard in the foreground, the French interloper in the background!

But each to his or her own. Rors the turncoat has sided with crème anglaise, but the rest of us are sticking with custard. For ever.

A few Bird’s custard facts to finish.

  • The Bird’s custard factory was in Birmingham, and later moved to Banbury, where sadly it blew up in a dust explosion in 1981.
  • Bird’s custard was supplied to WW1 soldiers.
  • Bird’s was one of the first companies to use colourful advertising and promotion items.